High Ground Conversationalists

I went to Colorado last week for the High Ground Conversation at Mike and Kathy McCoy’s place in the mountains. Every year they invite fifteen to twenty design academics and practitioners to come together for three days to talk about what’s happening in design. Everyone brings a short presentation that they deliver to the rest of the group out on the deck, often interrupted and always followed by intense discussion. That format takes up two of the three days, and on the third day people sum up the impressions that they have formed as a result of the conversation.


I’ve been going almost every year since Kathy and Mike came up with the idea in 1997, and I always find it intense and inspiring. Here’s something about the first and last presentations to give you a feeling of the scope and variety.

Harry Teague (Architect) adding to the Timeline

The first presentation was a Design Timeline. It was out of the normal in two ways, first because it was based on a big printout from a plotter (Mike and Kathy encourage verbal presentations to lubricate the conversational mode), and second because it was a collaboration between three people. Louise Sandhaus, who teaches graphic design at Cal Arts and is an AIGA Board Member, led off by explaining that the trio had decided to try to map the development of design. They had started on a Timeline and asked everyone else to add significant additional items.

Andrew Blauvelt, Chief of Communications at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, explained the trajectory of design in his usual erudite way.
Hugh Dubberly, influential interaction designer from San Francisco, offered alternative mapping approaches to the timeline, such as a taxonomy, or a description of the space that we operate in, defining attributes like grammar, syntax and semantics.

I was excited by the challenge posed by this presentation, as it seems to me that we are not very good at understanding how design has developed or where we are going. If you compare design to other artistic endeavors, we don’t seem to spend much time thinking about the way we operate or explaining any form of rationale to others.

The final presentation was from Mike McCoy himself, who brought us back to the delights of crafting an individual design solution. He and Peter Stathis have collaborated to design the Horizon LED Light for Humanscale. This creative duo have a lot in common, as Peter was a student under Mike and Kathy at Cranbrook and returned to teach there.

Mike described the Thin Wave Technology that uses high intensity LEDs surrounded by layers of optical films to produce a generous light for your desk. He told the story of building simple prototypes from balls and pantyhose to evolve the form, with an aesthetic that combines minimal modernism with organic forms. Here is a little video of Mike demonstrating the design at Neocon.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *